Posts Tagged ‘ethics’


The main body of my book, Dialogue with a Christian Proselytizer, is a Socratic dialogue between two characters: a Christian proselytizer and a skeptic. The skeptic does not discuss atheism, but instead tentatively accepts—for argument’s sake—the Christian’s premises that there is a Creator of sorts, that this said-Creator has made some sort of communication effort with mankind, and that the fundamentalists are correct in their assessment that “one religion is from God, the rest are man-made.” The two characters then discuss non-Christian religions, and the skeptic gets the proselytizer to pinpoint the telltale signs of the human authorship of foreign faiths by three criteria: (a) they’re pieced together from pre-existing religions, (b) their holy laws are often based on irrational prejudices and erroneous conclusions about cause and effect, and (c) their stories contain inaccurate and earth-bound descriptions of the universe—stars that are tiny, a moon that shines its own light, a sun that orbits a flat and stationary earth, etc. With those premises established, the discussion then turns to examining Christianity by the same light held up to the non-Christian religions.

Using the Socratic Method means that the skeptic does not have to argue with the Christian, but instead the Christian is forced to defend himself against his own accusations: his own description of a religion created not by an Almighty Architect of the Universe, but by the flawed mind of man.

Yet although I’ve found the Socratic Method to be an effective way to discuss skepticism of organized religion, I have not found it be an effective way to discuss atheism. (For example, I’ve yet to discover a good way to use the theist’s own arguments against himself when it comes to topics such as evolution.)

To make up for this drawback, I expand upon the two characters’ discussions with numerous essay-length endnotes: essays that explore the way that the non-theistic perspective of our origins and our ethics can make sense out of life with a clarity and coherence unmatched by any variety of theism. This essay on the roots of morality is one of those endnotes—the first in a series that I plan on posting in the months ahead.

* * *

The Pre-Religion, and Pre-Human,

Roots of Morality

(Endnote #12 from Dialogue with a Christian Proselytizer, pp. 213–216)

A common refrain from apologists for religion is that the existence of a Supreme and Just Being is the only possible explanation for human ethics. How else, they ask, could we have a conscience that values honesty, loyalty, kindness, and compassion; and condemns stealing, assault, rape, and murder? Blind natural selection, they say, couldn’t possibly produce anything akin to morality—for a world whose creatures came about by nothing more than a brutal struggle for survival would value little more than raw power.

Non-theists of course see things differently, yet even in the secular world it’s common to think of aggressive competition as the key component in natural selection. We tend to think of our tendencies for violence as something that’s part of our animal history, and that our cooperative and compassionate tendencies represent our humanity, or humanness—the side of us that has “risen above” our animal nature.

Yet victories in the struggle for survival and reproductive success can take many different forms, and caring and cooperation can sometimes be just as crucial as competition. Cooperative traits are widespread in just about all animals that live in social groups, as social animals need to work together in order to raise their young, warn each other of predators, and hunt their food and fight their enemies:

Wolves depend on teamwork to bring down large prey such as caribou or moose;

African wild dogs will carry fresh meat back for the “babysitters” who stayed at home with the cubs during the hunt;

Harris hawks live in groups with well-defined divisions of labor: certain hawks have the role of rearing and protecting the young, while others never visit the nest but do the hunting and share their food;

Dolphins will try to save companions trapped in tuna nets, and one or more dolphins will work together to help a sick or injured dolphin stay close to the surface to prevent it from drowning;

Vampire bats that have had a successful night on the town demonstrate an altruism of sorts by regurgitating blood for companions that have been less successful. (Reciprocal altruism, however, is the rule—for a bat that fails to share will in turn be denied when the tables are turned.)

In his book Our Inner Ape: A Leading Primatologist Explains Why We Are Who We Are, primatologist Frans De Waal’s extensive studies of apes reveal that even advanced forms of what may be called “ethics”—as demonstrated in acts of empathy, altruism, conflict resolution, notions of fairness, etc.—are not unique to humans.

Examples of ape altruism include caring for injured companions, cleaning each other’s wounds, slowing down and waiting for those who move slowly, and carrying fruit down from trees for elders who have lost their climbing abilities. An example of empathy for those outside their own species was caught on videotape (and is widely available on the web) when a gorilla named Binti Jua[1] rescued a three-year-old boy who had fallen into the primate exhibit at Chicago’s Brookfield Zoo: she scooped him up, carried him to safety, cradled him in her lap, and gently patted him on the back until the zoo staff arrived. The media highlighted this as something remarkable and hailed Binti Jua as a hero, but De Waal notes that empathy of this sort among apes is an everyday occurrence (yet “newsworthy” only when the compassion is directed toward humans).

Conflict resolution is another trait that’s often overlooked in wildlife. Conflicts among social animals are inevitable as individuals compete for food, sex, and power—yet because they also depend on each other (raising their young, fighting enemies, etc.), self-interest demands a certain degree of what may be called peace-making skills (at least within one’s own community). De Waal writes that like married couples, animals need to maintain good relationships despite flare-ups, and that different animals do this in a variety of ways:[2]

Golden monkeys [reconcile] with hand-holding, chimpanzees with a kiss on the mouth, bonobos with sex, and tonkean macaques with clasping and lipsmacking. Each species follows its own protocol. Take something I’ve seen repeatedly during reconciliations among apes … after one individual has attacked and bitten another, he or she returns to inspect the inflicted injury. The aggressor knows exactly where to look. … This suggests an understanding of cause and effect along the lines of “If I have bitten you, you must now have a gash in the same spot.” It suggests that the ape takes another’s perspective, realizing the impact of its own behavior on somebody else.

The definition of reconciliation (a friendly reunion between opponents not long after a fight) is straightforward, but the emotions involved are hard to pinpoint. The least that occurs, but this is already truly remarkable, is that negative emotions, such as aggression and fear, are overcome in order to move to a positive interaction, such as a kiss. The bad feelings are reduced or left behind. We experience this transition from hostility to normalization as “forgiveness.” Forgiveness is sometimes touted as uniquely human, even uniquely Christian, but it may be a natural tendency for cooperative animals (150–151).

As for primate notions of fairness, De Waal proposes that this went through three stages of development. Stage 1 is the resentment we feel when we get less than others. To demonstrate that this emotion exists even in monkeys, De Waal and fellow investigator Sarah Brosnan conducted an experiment that started out by teaching capuchin monkeys to exchange pebbles for cucumbers, which they learned quickly and happily. Once De Waal and Brosnan introduced inequity by giving certain monkeys not cucumbers but the more desirable “pay” of grapes, the cucumber-receiving monkeys became irritated about being short-changed. They sulked and sometimes even hurled their cucumber slices away—the food that they had previously been so satisfied with had become a symbol of injustice, and accordingly had become repulsive.

The study was first published in Nature on 18 September 2003 under the title “Monkeys Reject Unequal Pay,” and De Waal notes that the article “struck a chord, perhaps because many people see themselves as cuke-eaters in a world with lots of grapes.” From Nature’s abstract:

A monkey willing to perform a task for a cucumber may refuse to do so if its partner is given a tasty grape. … In balking at this unequal pay, the monkey is surely being irrational, rejecting food that is on offer. But the negative emotion of “unfairness” and the refusal to accept inequitable situations has been a positive influence in the long-term in the development of human society, and the same evolutionary pressures seem to have prevailed in other primates as well.

From the New York Times coverage of the study (“Genetic Basis to Fairness, Study Hints,” 18 September 2003):

“It’s not fair!” is a common call from the playground, and, in subtler form, from more adult assemblies. It now seems that monkeys, too, have a sense of fairness, a conclusion suggesting that this feeling may be part of the genetically programmed social glue that holds primate societies together, monkeys as well as humans.

Stage 2 in the development of our notion of fairness starts with concerns about how others will react if we’re the ones who are getting the preferential treatment. De Waal notes that monkeys (which are a more distant relative to us than apes[3]) aren’t concerned about the reactions of others: the lucky grape-recipient capuchins could have shared their grapes with their disadvantaged neighbors, but never did—in fact, the grape-recipients would even cheerfully scoop up and eat the cucumbers that their disgruntled neighbors had thrown away. Apes, however, do occasionally demonstrate this type of empathy. When a bonobo named Panbanisha, for example, received highly-prized snacks such as raisins, other members of her colony noticed and moved close to her cage, clamoring for the same treats. Panbanisha reacted by calling for her caretaker to bring more snacks—but she wouldn’t accept the food when it arrived, and instead waved her arm in her friends’ direction. De Waal writes:

… what fascinates me is the connection with resentment. All one needs for the larger sense of fairness to develop is anticipation of the resentment of others. There are excellent reasons to avoid arousing bad feelings. Someone failing to share is excluded from feeding clusters. At worst, the one being envied risks being beaten up. Was this why Panbanisha avoided conspicuous consumption in front of her friends? If so, we are getting close to what may be the source of the fairness principle: conflict avoidance (p. 220).

Stage 3 is that general feeling that inequality is a bad thing, and equality is a good thing. There’s no reason to believe that any primate other than man has such thoughts, but the building blocks are shared with other primates, and thus are likely to date back to our common ancestor. The roots of our ethical behavior, in other words, predate not only Judaism and every other ancient religion, but humanity itself.

De Waal concludes that the raw emotion of the resentment we feel at being mistreated, combined with an awareness of how our actions affect others, is what creates moral principles:

This is the bottom-up approach: from emotion to a sense of fairness. It is quite the opposite of the view that fairness was an idea introduced by wise men (founding fathers, revolutionaries, philosophers) after a lifetime of pondering right, wrong, and our place in the cosmos. Top-down approaches (looking for an explanation by starting at the end product and working backward) are almost always wrong. They ask why we are the only ones to possess fairness, justice, politics, morality, and so on when the real question is what the building blocks are. What are the basic elements needed to construct fairness, justice, politics, morality, and so on? How did the larger phenomenon derive from simpler ones? As soon as one ponders this question, it is obvious that we share many building blocks with other species (p. 221).

Once tendencies such as compassion and cooperation exist—even if they arose only to care for one’s kin and live peaceably within one’s own clan—they can branch out in any number of ways, such as having compassion for those outside our own communities. Religious founders take these innate tendencies and give them a formal structure by putting them in the mouths of their gods:

sometimes limiting God’s orders for compassion strictly to those within one’s own community (that is, brutality towards outsiders is permissible, and sometimes even a direct order);

sometimes expanding God’s directions for compassion to all humanity;

sometimes—as found in the Judeo-Christian Bible—an incongruent mix of both of the above;

sometimes, as is with Jainism, compassion is aimed at all living creatures, even—incredibly—mosquitoes:

All breathing, existing, living, sentient creatures should not be slain, nor treated with violence, nor abused, nor tormented, nor driven away. This is the pure, unchangeable, eternal law …

Akaranga Sutra, First Book,

Fourth Lecture (Righteousness), First Lesson: 1–2

De Waal’s take on morality and religion:

Once this sensibility [kindness aimed at family and potential reciprocators] had come into existence, its range expanded. At some point, sympathy for others became a goal in itself: the centerpiece of human morality and an essential aspect of religion. Thus, Christianity urges us to love our neighbor as ourselves, clothe the naked, feed the poor, and tend the sick. It is good to realize, though, that in stressing kindness, religions are enforcing what is already part of our humanity. They are not turning human behavior around, only underlining pre-existing capacities. How could it be otherwise? One cannot sow the seeds of morality on unwilling soil … (p. 181).

Modern religions are only a few thousand years old. It’s hard to imagine that human psychology was radically different before religions arose. It’s not that religion and culture don’t have a role to play, but the building blocks of morality clearly predate humanity. We recognize them in our primate relatives, with empathy being the most conspicuous in the bonobo and reciprocity in the chimpanzee. Moral rules tell us when and how to apply these tendencies, but the tendencies themselves have been in the works since time immemorial (p. 225).

(NOTE: I uploaded a three-part video series of me reading this post on my YouTube channel [http://www.youtube.com/user/ToddAllenGates]: see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L6jTAV9BJg4.)

[1] Here’s a link to a YouTube video of Binti Jua and the fallen boy: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gp7cZ0AWxfI

[2] Unless otherwise noted, all excerpts are taken from Frans De Waal’s Our Inner Ape.

[3] In everyday language, the words ape and monkey are often used interchangeably. Strictly speaking, however, apes—chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas, and orangutans—are not monkeys (the easiest way to tell the difference is that apes don’t have tails). As for the evolutionary line that leads to humans, our most recent common ancestor with monkeys goes back some 25 million years. With orangutans it goes back some 14 million years; with gorillas, 8 to 11 million years; and with chimps and bonobos, 5 to 7 million years. Chimps and bonobos and even gorillas, in other words, are much more closely related to humans than they’re related to monkeys. (Chimps and bonobos split from each other after they split from the human line, so both are equally close to us.)

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Life, Science and Politics

The Election is Almost Over

In the United States, we have a new president and the election is nearly complete. There are still three seats in question in the Senate. One will be settled by a special runoff election, and two will be settled (we hope) by a recount.

There were two issues in this election which were to be settled by voting on Civil Rights issues. My personal opinion is that referendum on Civil Rights issues should never be subject to vote as this is a circumvention of the idea of a Republic and opens the door to Tyranny of the Majority. I am referring to votes on the issues of gay rights and abortion.

Three states voted to suppress the rights of gays to marry. Two states’ elections were intended to stave off court rulings which may or may not appear before their courts. One state’s election was to overturn a state supreme court ruling that laws against gay marriage were unconstitutional. The resulting outcome of the election has sparked protest and outrage throughout the country, as those of us who think that the concept of marriage should not be a matter of choosing a religious viewpoint to make policy have stated so publicly and loudly. The voters of California, Florida and Arizona made a huge mistake. The voters of Arkansas, in denying the rights of gay adoptive parents and indeed of orphan children to be adopted, made a mean-spirited decision that has no place in a free society.

In South Dakota, the voters sensibly denied a referendum to make abortion illegal and set up a new challenge to Roe v Wade. In Colorado, the voters avoided a very stupid amendment to their constitution which would have afforded unborn children all of the Constitutional rights that adults share, potentially making all forms of abortion illegal. It would have opened up a whole new series of messes in law and medicine.

Over the last two weeks, I have been wondering how science should be used to help guide the ethics of public policy. The proposed Colorado Amendment is especially troubling because of the difficulty in defining when life itself begins in the womb.

The Catholic Church, and indeed many churches who focus on the ethics of abortion, teaches that “Life Begins at Conception.” And this is an obvious first step towards the life of a human, but as gynecologists understand there are many steps between conception and birth that can be naturally interfered with to prevent the outcome of a slap on the butt and a tearful wail.

Following conception, a fertilized egg must implant in the uterus in order to start the process of dividing cells to multiply and form a pharyngula stage embryo. While this process can happen in the fallopian tubes, such events are extremely dangerous to both the mother and the fetus. These “ectopic pregnancies” are deadly and can only be treated by ending the pregancy. The proposed amendment could have led to emergency room physicians who perform procedures to end such pregnancies being prosecuted for the murder of an unborn child. Would that be a positive benefit for society? No.

The Blind Watchmaker has not been kind to women regarding the birthing process. (Epicurus, anyone?) Surely, an Intelligent Designer could have done a much better job of creating such an important process for the beginning of life for an exalted and special species such as Man. While obstetrics have done wonders at saving the lives of thousand of women who would have otherwise died, at any stage of pregnancy the mother carries enormous risk to herself and to the developing fetus inside. Careful, scientifically-based treatments to save the life of the mother may often call for the end of life for the fetus and I don’t see how the government should be able to flatly say that any such treatments should be made illegal and subject to criminal prosecution.

The government of Afghanistan under the deposed Taliban ruled that women were not allowed to be doctors because of their religious belief that women are subservient to men and subject to male whims. Their religion also ruled that no man was to examine a women’s reproductive organs unless he was married to her, and so gynecological examinations were ruled to be illegal and along with that obstetrics were severely hampered as well. While they are temporarily (and I hope permanently) deposed, the resulting unnecessary deaths of women and fetuses was a tragic situation created by religion. While some of you may think that this is an example of reductio ad absurdum, the passage of the amendment in Colorado would have had the same sort of effect.

The impetus for the amendment was religious in nature, and clearly ignored the science of conception and pregnancy. It was driven by the efforts of a young woman who wanted to “protect babies.” I want to protect them, too, by making sure that obstetricians have all of the available tools and options to protect both the lives of the mothers and the fetuses. But doctors are all too aware that saving the lives of both the mother and the fetus is impossible and that the choice belongs to those involved and not the government; and certainly not a government restricted by the questionable ethics of a subset of the population that holds no quarter for abortion of any kind.

There are now cases of priests who have told their parishioners that if they voted for Barack Obama then they should perform an Act of Contrition prior to accepting the Eucharist. They have been told that voting for Obama was a sin because he is not an absolutist when it comes to abortion. For many atheists, this has led to a call for an investigation into the tax-exempt status of the parishes whose priests have made such pronouncements. Churches are not to preach on politics if they wish to remain tax-exempt.

For me, it raises a more disturbing question. Where were these same self-righteous clerics when George Bush was re-elected in 2004? By then, we all ready knew that the case for the War in Iraq was based on data that he knew were faulty and he pressed on anyway. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians have been killed (I am not arguing that Saddam Hussein should have been left to kill and torture his subjects. Please review nuance before making that accusation against me.) “Shock and Awe” was an indiscriminate bombing and shelling of targets and “collateral damage” included untold numbers of civilians.

Where was this demand for “respect for life” following the 2004 election? Tell me of a priest who admonished parishioners for choosing Bush over Kerry then. No, the focus even then was on Kerry’s public position that while he is opposed to abortion he would not in good conscience be able to impose his religious beliefs on those who don’t share them.

Too often, as a society, we look to religion for guidance on ethical issues. While this may often be appropriate as clergy usually must have some training on how to approach ethics, it is often very dangerous. I have written about the misguided policies of the Bush Administration’s policy on funding embryonic stem cell research, and the curious ethical position that disposal of frozen embryos is preferable to research which also destroys blastocysts.

The science is often ignored, and the Initiatives, both passed and defeated related to life issues, were based solely on a religious position. For me, as someone who values both women and fetuses, our policies should be more carefully targeted to reducing the frequency of unwanted pregnancies.

But then we get into the issue of contraception and factual sex education, to which the “pro-life” forces also raise strong religious objections.

To sum up, ethics are more sensibly guided by paying attention to science in these issues than to hard-line, Talibanic positions.

I invite any of my co-bloggers to address the issue of homosexuality and “lifestyle choice” related to science and religion.

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